Emilie Johnson playing for UCSB in 2011.
Paul Wellman (file)

Emilie Johnson made up her mind to be a UCSB basketball player before her junior year in high school. She never wavered in her commitment, even when Mark French, the inspirational coach who recruited her, retired before her first collegiate season. Lindsay Gottlieb was the Gaucho women’s head coach for three years, but last spring, Gottlieb moved to UC Berkeley. So now, Johnson enters her senior year under yet a new coaching staff, headed by former Rutgers assistant Carlene Mitchell.

“You just have to embrace the change,” said Johnson, a perky 5’6” guard. “I was really close to Coach French’s staff. I had a ton of respect for the way he went about things. When Coach G came in my freshman year, I didn’t know any different than to accept a new challenge and really buy into the system. There’s no way to look at it other than as a positive thing. Now, I’m going to learn from Coach Mitch and her staff. She has so much fire and drive. She loves to discipline us and make us better. That’s going to show in the results on the court.”

Only one thing could tear Johnson away from being the hardest worker at UCSB’s preseason practices — being asked to do the same for her country. Johnson has been chosen to play for Team U.S.A. at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. The women’s basketball competition will take place October 21-25. The 12-member U.S. team will convene practice on Saturday, October 15.

Em-J, as Johnson is known to her friends, considers the assignment a dream come true, and she has the blessing of Mitchell. “She’s going to be under the guidance of great coaches [headed by former Colorado coach Ceal Barry], and she’ll have a great experience to share with the team,” the new Gaucho coach said.

While she was being interviewed, Mitchell watched a drill out of the corner of her eye, and she abruptly interrupted an answer. “Sweets! Sweets! Sweets!” Mitchell shouted at junior forward Sweets Underwood. “You can’t have your shoulders bent over. Back straight, until you get ready to pass it.”

Returning to the subject at hand, Mitchell told how she intended to help Johnson, the Gaucho leader in scoring and assists last year, improve her game. “It’s all in the little things,” she said. “When you’re coaching great kids like [former Rutgers stars] Cappie Pondexter or Essence Carson, it’s not just athleticism. We’re going to sweat the small things, and that’s only going to help her as a player.”

Another glimpse at the court set Mitchell off. “Sweets! The wing can’t be behind the ball-carrier. The wings have got to run. If we’re going to score in transition, the wings have got to be in front.” Then she addressed sophomore guard Nicole Nesbit. “Nicole! Get that bounce pass down.”

Mitchell understands what the Gaucho women are going through. “It’s got to be hard any time you learn a new system,” she said, “but that’s part of paying your dues. I’ve got to be patient, given the fact that they are kids. They didn’t ask to be thrown into this situation.”

Johnson relishes the situation. “It’s a different style, that East Coast passion for basketball,” she said. “Our coaches are going to push us to the limit to make us better.”

French has been following the Gauchos from the stands, and the former coach is not surprised that Johnson has persevered. “She’s an old-fashioned, blue-collar Gaucho like the players I had in the early ’90s,” French said. Among them was Cori Close, a spunky guard who is about to begin her first season as UCLA’s head coach. French later coached three talented players who wore Team U.S.A. jerseys — Erin Buescher, Kristen Mann, and Lindsay Taylor. “Emilie may not be blessed with that much talent, but she makes up for it with her heart,” French said.

Besides representing UCSB in the Pan American Games — an Olympic-style competition held every four years — Johnson is proud to represent Loomis, the small town east of Sacramento where she grew up. Its entire population of some 6,000 could be squeezed into UCSB’s Thunderdome. Her high school, Del Oro, has the distinction of graduating two future Gauchos, as guard Madeline Campbell is a first-year player at UCSB. Campbell is a six-footer, but Johnson said, “On the inside, we’re both from Loomis, and we have the values that Loomis instilled in us.”

A week after the gold medal basketball final in Guadalajara, Johnson and the Gaucho women will host an exhibition game against Vanguard University on November 1. They will play their regular-season home opener against St. Mary’s on November 17 after a road trip to Seattle University and Portland State University.

Em-J is UCSB’s second Johnson to make a U.S. team this year. Orlando Johnson of the men’s basketball team played in the World University Games in China. The senior guard is one of 50 players under consideration for the prestigious Wooden Award during the coming season.


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